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A blog by Leah Sandals about free admission, Monday, May 9, 2011

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Recommended: Elaine Gurian’s A Case for Eliminating Admission Charges at Museums


 As ya’ll likely know, one of my pet peeves/issues/dead horses I like to flog relates to the severely unaffordable museum admission fees we see in Toronto, and, increasingly, in the rest of Canada. My concerns around this issue have been exacerbated by the fact that many of the access measures that used to offset high admission fees in Canadian museums, like free evening hours or free access to permanent collections, are disappearing.
The reasons this decreasing access concerns me are manifold: first, the mission statements and policies of many public museums promise to maximize or at least prioritize public access; second, the charitable status of these institutions in part rests on meeting such an access mission; third, these barriers to access effectively, in my view, decrease public support (and eventually, taxation supports) for museums and the arts over the long term; fourth, the public actually owns many of the permanent collections that they are being charged through the nose to view; fifth, I believe the arts can play a crucial role in the health of some individuals and communities, and I want to encourage the wellness of our general population. I could go on, but won’t.
Given my passion for these issues, I’m surprised that I haven’t come across the writings of museum consultant Elaine Gurian sooner. In 2005, Gurian published an eloquent essay in the American Association of Museums’ Museum News on the issue. It’s called “Free at Last: A Case for Eliminating Admission Charges in Museums.” I certainly recommend it for a read over at the AAM site. Here’s a few excerpts:
If they remain oriented toward their paying customers, museums will never become the town square that we are so fond of talking about. Drop the charges.
I have reluctantly but unequivocally come to the conclusion that general admission charges are the single greatest impediment to making our museums truly and fully accessible….
To be clear, I am not calling for the removal of all charges to all activities. Quite to the contrary, I believe that to maintain fiscal solvency, museums will have to look for additional fee-for-service opportunities to increase their “per capita” income. I am, however, suggesting that there be free admission to the core functions of the museum, including permanent installations, and perhaps access to ancillary services such as reference centers, libraries, and study storage….
The reasons for a thorough reorganization of museum finances are not primarily monetary but philosophical. I am convinced that charging admissions fundamentally alters the nature of museums and categorically changes their functions and orientation.
Museums cannot argue that they hold the patrimony of all if only some can afford to see it. They cannot argue that they are the meeting ground, town square, forum, and safe civic space if only some citizens—those who pay—can take part. And they cannot argue that they are a resource for those eager to learn if the learner must first determine if she can afford to learn. There is a fundamental disconnect between the mission statements we write and the act of imposing an entry fee.
The operational arguments for establishing free admission are many:
-The admission process as the first experience is off-putting and adds to resistance by non-users.
-The ways that individuals make use of free venues is entirely different from the ways they visit places that charge. Imposing a charge makes the museum experience a special and occasional one rather than an easily repeatable one. It is the ease of entry and potential of repeated use, I contend, that converts institutions from “nice to have” to “essential” on the civic scale.
-Some have complained that the charges imposed by many museums are now exorbitant. The aggregate cost for a young family of four is sufficiently daunting that even traditional museum goers with modest incomes—some of our most motivated visitors—cannot come as often as they might wish.
-A need to offer reduced admission costs is recognized by museums that promote various free or reduced admission schemes. However, taking advantage of this requires forethought and planning and so tends to be used primarily by more experienced and organized visitors.
-The argument is offered by some cognoscenti that charges help keep attendance down, which they prefer. This is antithetical to our professed desire to allow all who wish to attend to do so.

Again, you can read the rest over at the AAM site. Gurian has also posted updates to her view on her own website, which are also worth a read.
As an aside, the last point listed re: the “cognoscenti” resounds with something I heard Swiss artist Pippilotti Rist says in The Colour of Your Socks, a recent documentary on her work. To paraphrase: Art can be like a fetish to some people; the more the majority of people don’t understand it or don’t like it—the more exclusive it is—the more this first group comes to love it. Movies are different; they speak to a wide range of people. Everybody “gets it.” I’m trying to do something in the middle.
I guess my point is that our museums really need to do more “in the middle” too.
(Image of Canuck cash from CanadianFreeStuff.com)



Robert said…

I couldn’t agree more. My immediate family was in Toronto yesterday for Mother’s Day, and our tentative plan was to go to the AGO or the ROM after brunch. I was quite looking forward to it - especially hanging out with my young nieces and talking with them about art - but in the end we didn’t go. For 9 of us the overall cost was just too expensive. We went to the beach instead, which was also quite lovely. I can’t help but think, however, that the high cost of museum admission prices contributes to the lack of art education in Canada, which is the root of several other problems.

Leah Sandals said…

Robert — Thanks for your comment. What a story, one that is quite representative of the public’s relationships to museums at this point. (As well as, I’ll admit, potentially reflective of the weather yesterday in Toronto! But still.)
This dynamic worries me on the arts education front too. Several recent reports from the National Endowment of the Arts have highlighted that “Arts education in childhood is the most significant predictor of both arts attendance and personal arts creation throughout the rest of a person’s life.” And museums can’t just blame school boards for declining arts education. Access to museums is a key path to arts education as well, and, as the NEA points out, to the long-term sustainablity of the arts in general. Here’s a link to one of those studies: http://www.nea.gov/research/2008-SPPA-ArtsLearning.pdf
Overall, I can’t help but get the sense that Canadian museums are shooting themselves in the foot by continuing to charge such high admission fees and cutting access programs. I know finances are tight (even superdupertight) but there has to be a better way.

Elaine Heumann said…

How very very nice to find this posting. Many thanks for writing about free admission which remains central to my heart and good luck with your blog which I like very very much. Nice to find new friends in unexpected places. Elaine Heumann Gurian

Leah Sandals said…

Thanks for your comment, Elaine! Keep up the good work! It’s always refreshing for me to find people who feel passionately about this issue as well.